For a Scotsman, residing in Ireland who writes predominantly on topics of Scottish and Irish interest, it was only a matter of time before I sought to bring attention to two of our nations most notorious scoundrels. The names of Burke and Hare are now synonymous with a rare kind of unpleasantness, a wickedness that is at once repulsive and strangely charming. Bringing their exploits to light now however serves a dual purpose, acting as it does as a perfect segue into a hopelessly under-reported travesty.
Burke and Hare were Irish immigrants who arrived in Edinburgh in 1827, five years before the Anatomy Act of 1832 which legitimised the provision of cadavers to a medical profession that previously had relied on bodysnatching or the disinternment of Edinburgh’s deid to supply their demand. ‘Resurrectionists’, as they were so known, were opportunistic thieves who would steal under cover of darkness into graveyards in order to acquire ‘anatomical subjects’ for the doctors teaching at the Edinburgh Medical School.
William Burke and William Hare were more opportunistic than most. When they moved into Tanner’s Close in 1827, and took up residence in Margaret Laird’s lodging house, a sickly guest gave the men an idea they were to embrace with chilling enthusiasm.
Over a period of ten months, Burke and Hare murdered sixteen men and women in order to supply the venerable Dr. Robert Knox with cadavers for his hugely successful anatomical dissection classes in Surgeons Square which he boasted frequently drew crowds of over 400.
Burke and Hare’s first victim was a poorly individual named Joseph whom they plied with whisky and subsequently suffocated. Others soon followed Joseph out the back door in a wooden tea chest and up the close at the back of the castle, for which Burke and Hare were paid the pricely sum of £8 – £10. The grisly goings on were only stopped when two guests of Burke’s, Ann and James Gray grew suspicious concerning the disappearance of a guest they had dined with the previous night. When they subsequently discovered her body hidden beneath the bed, they alerted police and both men were arrested.
Hare and his wife turned King’s witnesses, securing immunity in order to cement the case against Burke which was far from conclusive. Burke was tried, found guilty and hanged in front of an estimated 25,000 people on the 28th Jan, 1829. The day after his hanging, William Burke’s body was dissected in front of an engrossed audience. During the dissection, Professor Alexander Monro dipped his pen into Burke’s blood and wrote with it, ‘This is written with the blood of Wm Burke who was hanged at Edinburgh. The blood was taken from his head’.
Despite the gruesome nature of their crimes, Burke and Hare are remembered with characteristic Scottish romanticism. Far from their names striking fear into the hearts of men, they were used in skipping songs, sung by ponytailed wee lassies in the schoolyard,
Up the close and doun the stair,
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare,
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
Even Sir Walter Scott was less than appalled it would seem by the actions of the two Ulstermen, remarking,
Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head and carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missd because nobody wishd to see again.
The term ‘burking’ is still used to describe the manner of suffocating by pressing on the chest or the quiet suppression of detail, Burke and Hare Tours remain popular in Edinburgh where patrons can retrace the men’s steps around Westport, and numerous films and television spots have paid homage directly or indirectly to the Westport murders, with many doing so in a darkly comic vein.
The efficacy of time as an able anaesthetic is well known. We might chuckle now at the ‘resurrectionists’ tag given to those disinterring bodies from the local graveyard and ‘burke’ a snigger at the shameless nerve of those two Irish rascals. It is far harder however, to countenance such events taking place today in the world’s first hyper power without feeling anything other than a sickening sensation in the gut.
Practitioners of Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, the Chinese spiritual practice of gentle exercise and meditation, will garner more chilling insight from the story related above. It is now almost fifteen years since Jiang Zemin, the then leader of the Chinese Communist Party outlawed the practice of Falun Gong and implemented the large scale detention and persecution of practitioners, simultaneously criminalising 100 million people engaged in quiet self betterment.
Since the ban, hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children have been imprisoned in psychiatric units, prisons, and labour camps. Even more chillingly, the Party is now actively targeting Falun Gong practitioners for their organs in an effort to keep up with China’s booming organ trade.
Incredibly, in 1992, the year in which Falun Gong was first presented, the state actively sought to inspire its citizens to take up the practice. Financial concerns about the cost of the national health service meant that the government was only too willing to advocate on behalf of Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong’s founder and to champion the many benefits of Falun Gong practice. Indeed, Li Hongzhi was highly decorated by the Party, winning an award in 1993 for Advancing Frontier Science. Official surveys conducted in the years following publication of Hongzhi’s book of teachings, Zhuan Falun, deemed the practice to be beneficial to China as a whole, delivering high moral standards and encouraging greater social stability. It was further posited by the Chinese Sports Commission only months before its outright banning, that every practitioner of Falun Gong saved the country 1,000 yuan per head in national healthcare costs. With practitioners numbering between 70 and 100 million, those savings were counted in billions of yuan every year.
Ultimately, Falun Gong became a victim of its own success. With such a large number of adherents, including Politburo members themselves (all seven members of the Communist Party’s executive standing committee openly admitted to reading Zhuan Falun and the highest ranking government officials frequently attended Li Hongzhi’s lectures) it was only a matter of time before the Party, clinging to its monopoly on faith and devotion, sought to reign in Falun Gong’s widespread popularity.
Falun Gong may not even be accurately described as a religion given its lack of leadership, loose structure and absence of devotion to any one individual. A re-imagining of traditional Chinese practices such as qigong, Falun Gong’s central tenets are summed up by three simple words. Truthfulness. Forbearance. Compassion. It is all the more incongruous then that such innocuous practice should engender such distrust.
More than jealousy however, the reasons for the Party’s sudden departure from advocacy to outright demonising lie in the same opportunism and callous lack of compassion that galvanised Burke and Hare’s resolve over a quarter of a century earlier.
Organ transplantation is a hugely profitable business in China and yet, China has no organ donation system. It does not actively encourage citizens to donate. It claims this is due to a cultural aversion to the idea although Taiwan and Hong Kong both have no such aversion.
Where in the United States, Canada and in Europe organ donations can take months and often years for suitable matches to be found, in China, organs can be matched to those seeking transplants within two to three weeks.
This tells us that China, unlike the rest of the world, does not require organ donation to keep up with its demand for donor organs. China evidently has at its disposal a large number of readily available organs, so many in fact, that transplants can be made on occasion, the following week from first requesting a match.
Even more disturbing than the allegations that the Chinese government is targeting the organs of Falun Gong practitioners (Falun Gong adherents are routinely blood tested upon arrival to prisons while non practising inmates immured alongside them are exempt) is the well founded allegation that the harvesting occurs while the chosen practitioner is still alive.
For a more detailed analysis, for proofs and transcripts of conversations between investigators and doctors offering Falun Gong organs, please familiarise yourself with the following report, ‘Bloody Harvest – Revised Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China‘ by David Matas and David Kilgour.
If what you read concerns you (it will) please urge your local representative to lobby the European Union to confront the Chinese authorities and enact legislation to ban organ transplant tourism.